Highest Paying MBA Concentrations Of 2016


No one aspires to be the grunt at the bottom of the chain. The bigger picture is reserved for the strategist. Watching your vision spring to life can be fulfilling work. If you’re an MBA, it pays well, too.

That was the finding of the latest College Salary Report from PayScale. According to their data, which covered 190 programs that awarded MBA degrees, students who specialized in strategy earned the highest early career pay after graduation at $96,200 (up $2,900 over the previous year). They also came away with the highest earnings at the mid-point of their career, with median pay being $149,000. This was a $1,000 increase over last year’s report —and the third consecutive year where strategy was the highest-paying concentration for MBAs.


The salary report is based on data collected from employees who completed PayScale’s employee survey, which numbers 1.4 million U.S.-based responses. As part of this process, PayScale ranks both school- and major-specific salaries. To qualify for a ranking, schools must generate a minimum of 50 survey profiles from alumni, though some schools have as many of 4,000 profiles in PayScale’s system. According to PayScale, 27,292 MBAs completed its employee survey, with such top-tier programs as Harvard, MIT, Columbia, Wharton, Stanford, Berkeley, Chicago, and Northwestern represented, along with less heralded programs like South Florida, Cincinnati, Clemson, and St. Louis. Given the lowish numbers, the firm’s sample seems dominated by second- and third-tier responses because the medians are lower than compensation typically reported by recent graduates of the top schools.

Also dampening pay levels is the fact that MBAs with higher degrees are excluded from the sample. As a result, professionals with joint MD and JD degrees are not included as are PhDs. MBAs must also be employed full-time. In its salary totals, PayScale “combines base annual salary or hourly wage, bonuses, profit sharing, tips, commissions, overtime, and other forms of cash earnings, as applicable.” However, it excludes stock compensation, retirement benefits and the value of other non-cash benefits such as healthcare. Salary data is also divided into two tiers: early career (five years or less of experience) and mid-career (“44 years old and [having] 15 years of experience”).


Starting out, general and strategic management tended to be the best concentration for making good bucks, with MBAs earning $85,200, though still $11,000 short of their strategy counterparts. They were followed by corporate finance ($78,100), operations management ($75,500), and operations and supply chain management ($72,700). Surprisingly, entrepreneurs fared well early on, earning median pay of $70,300. For the most part, quant concentrations like finance, logistics and information technology delivered the best pay right after graduation, accounting for seven of the 10 highest median earnings .

Where is the lowest pay? You guessed it: human resources. PayScale MBA respondents who chose human resources management or human resources grossed an anemic $49,600 and $48,400 respectively. Accounting and business ($54,900), accounting ($54,000), and health care management ($51,200) were other concentrations that ranked low for early annual returns for MBAs.


General and strategic management also took the bronze at mid-career, with MBAs pulling down $146,000 at 15 years after graduation or later. This concentration also closed the gap with strategy, going from a $11,000 annual difference at early career to $3,000 by mid-career. Entrepreneurs also surged by mid-career, pulling down $139,000 median annual salaries, nearly double where they started at early career. After entrepreneurship, you’ll find finance and marketing categories clustered together at the career mid-point: corporate finance ($138,000), finance and economics ($137,000), finance ($130,000), business and marketing ($126,000), marketing and management ($126,000) and marketing ($123,000).

In fact, poet-oriented concentrations topped quant ones by a six-to-four margin in top ten median pay by mid-career (nearly the inverse of early career pay).  However, there was one area that didn’t change between early and mid-career: MBAs with a concentration in human resources or accounting remained among the lowest paid. Human resources management and human resources pulled down median salaries of $81,100 and $79,200 by mid-career (with accounting and accounting and business coming in slightly ahead at $87,900 and $81,900 respectively). To put those numbers into context, MBAs in human resources were earning less by mid-career than their peers in strategy and general strategic management were making in their early career.


Some concentrations also produced a bigger bump in salary over time than others. Notably, students who concentrated on finance economics and business and marketing doubled their incomes between early and mid-career, with the former going from $66,700 to $137,000 and the latter improving from $61,700 to $126,000. Aside from entrepreneurship, MBAs who focused on marketing, marketing and management, and international business nearly doubled their incomes as well.

Alas, the PayScale method has its deficiencies. Namely, the categories are nearly indistinguishable at times, with marketing, for example, being divvyed up into four subsets: marketing, business and marketing, marketing management, and business management and marketing. That’s peanuts compared to management, which encompasses 18 of the 38 categories used by PayScale. The pay also doesn’t factor in student debt, a major impediment to MBAs early on (particularly at top tier programs). More important, it doesn’t differentiate pay between alumni at top tier programs from those at second and third tier programs, diluting the earning power of the former. Still, it does reflect the recent and historic market demand for particular skill sets, giving MBAs a marker for their worth.

Go to next page to see early career and mid-career salaries for MBAs in 38 business concentrations, along with accompanying salaries for master’s and bachelor’s degree holders.

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.